The success of the civil rights movement in the US resulted in many changes during the 1960s. One aspect of the protest took its form in music – songs which both documented abuse and discrimination, and gave voice to demands and hope. It’s far too large a subject for one post, so I decided as a start, to focus on songs associated with Birmingham, Alabama taken from a book in our stock.

Carawan  Freedom is a constant struggle  (publ. 1968)

Freedom is a constant struggle
The front cover

In the introduction, Guy and Candie Carawan comment on the role of music like this:

Since 1960 singing has been important to the movement. People sang on demonstrations and at mass meetings, in paddy waggons and jail cells, to bolster spirits, to gain courage and to bring people together. Every new chapter of the struggle produced its own songs. 

However, they concede towards the end that the original ‘days of singing freedom songs … are over’ with this comment:

Since 1960 there have been tremendous changes in the Civil Rights Movement. … They now know for certain it will take more than Love, Courage and Truth. Those same people who created and sang the songs of love and brotherhood, now parody them in jest amd seek for new ways of expression.

Birmingham, Alabama in 1963

Congress of Racial Equality march in Washington D.C. on September 22, 1963 (Photo: T. O’Halloran) Public domain

The Wikipedia article on the civil rights campaign in Birmingham describes the city thus:

In the early 1960s, Birmingham was one of the most racially divided cities in the United States, both as enforced by law and culturally. Black citizens faced legal and economic disparities, and violent retribution when they attempted to draw attention to their problems.

A related article makes this even clearer:

Birmingham had no black police officers, firefighters, sales clerks in department stores, bus drivers, bank tellers, or store cashiers.

The Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) coordinated a campaign of civil, non-violent confrontations with the authorities in its desire to achieve desegregation of Birmingham’s retail area. Martin Luther King was one of the participants.

The first song in our book is an adaptation of a spiritual:

Got on my trave’lin’ shoes.      Well I got on my trave’lin’ shoes
Got on my trave’lin’ shoes.      I been trave’lin’, Lord
Got on my trave’lin’ shoes.      Trave’lin’ for freedom now
Got on my trave’lin’ shoes.      Fightin’ for justice now 

Smithsonian Folkways issued a recording of some of the songs associated with the civil rights movement at this time. Here’s one of them which can lead you to the whole recording, if you’re interested.

Children’s Crusade

16th_Street_Baptist_Church, Birmingham AL
Reconstructed 16th Street Baptist Church (Photo: John Morse) Used under Creative Commons 2.5 licence

The campaign started to run out of adults prepared to risk arrest. Having a run in with the police gave the protesters’ white landlords or employers the perfect excuse to turn on them. Instead, the leaders decided to mobilise the high school student population. On 2nd May, 1963, more than a thousand skipped school to gather at the 16th St. Baptist Church.

The next song is introduced by Carawan in this fashion:

The sixty-nine voice Birmingham Movement gospel choir rocked mass meetings, making spirits jubilant, night after night for nearly three months.

The lyrics are another lead and response gospel:

Great day for me           Great day for me
Oh yes it is                        Great day for me
I am so happy                  I’m so happy
I’m going to be free       I’m going to be free 

The students set off in groups to City Hall to protest segregation and were arrested. The next day started the same way but the city authorities in the shape of Bull Connor reacted with force. Iconic images of police dogs attacking protesters, and firehoses being used against other individuals made national news.

I came across this video from the Library of Congress while researching this post. It’s quite long (54 minutes), but goes into much more detail than I can, and it includes a number of images I can’t show here because of copyright issues. You can use the time bar to skip through.

Birmingham Sunday

Wreckage near the Gaston Motel (photo: Marion S. Trikosko) Public domain

Violent suppression of the protests led to the Kennedy administration getting more involved. Continuing negotiations between the SCLC and Birmingham’s businesses resulted in limited desegregation and talks about further progress. The national publicity pushed the issue of civil rights further into the limelight.

Even those small steps enraged sections of the white community. The integrated Gaston Motel was bombed on the 11th of May, shortly after King left it. That led to retaliatory rioting which caused the deployment of federal troops.

A few months later, four members of the Klu Klux Klan planted explosives at the 16th Street Baptist Church. The explosion occurred on a Sunday (15th of September) and caused four fatalities and numerous injured. Despite the perpetrators being known to the FBI, the first trial wasn’t held until the 1970s, and two others only took place in the 2000s.

King described the bombing as

one of the most vicious and tragic crimes ever perpetrated against humanity.

This is where our final song comes in. Carawan quotes another source in his introduction and what it says gives you a horrible sense of what happened:

Claude Wesley stood … at a service station two blocks from the 16th Street Baptist Church. All at once the whole morning exploded. Hurled by the force of ten or fifteen sticks of dynamite, rocks and glass crashed like shells through the trees, and Wesley … raced toward the screams which were rising from the church.

Set to a slow, solemn tune, here’s what the opening verses of the song have to say:

Come round by my side and I’ll sing you a song,
I’ll sing it so softly, it’ll do no one wrong,
On Birmingham Sunday the blood ran like wine,
And the choirs kept singing of Freedom.

That cold autumn morning no eyes saw the sun,
And Addie Mae Collins, her number was one,
At an old Baptist church there was no need to run,
And the choirs kept singing of Freedom.